Our Time of Infinite Memory

by Michael Potemra

It’s hard to be optimistic about the future of our country these days.  As recently as the 1990s — O blessed age! — one could see a rising American tide of happiness and prosperity drawing the rest of the world upwards as with silken cords. Now optimists are being reduced to a wish that America (“America alone!”) won’t collapse quite as fast as the rest of the world. So it’s all the more important to celebrate the ways, large and small, in which our lives are better than those of our forebears. This is one such small example.  I was recently unable to sleep because I simply couldn’t remember a small fact. Out of the many numbers of books I have loved, one of them had a first sentence in which the main character reflected, “If [SOMETHING SOMETHING], it’s all right with me.” I couldn’t for the life of me remember what the book was. Vonnegut? Sounds like him, but no — his characters’ line of self-acceptance was “So it goes.” Or maybe I was thinking not of a book, but of Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe, in the film version of The Long Goodbye? But no, he went though that movie muttering “It’s okay with me.”

Twenty years ago, I would simply have had to get over my lapse of memory and consign the book to Lethe. But now, all I had to do was type “first line,” “novel,” and “it’s all right with me” into Google, and bingo! “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.”  Now I am reconnected to Saul Bellow’s Herzog, and to his Herzog.  (Which, if you haven’t read, I recommend strongly that you do. One prominent right-wing literary fellow told me recently that he thought Bellow’s style was remarkably clunky, especially for someone with such a high reputation. I reread Humboldt’s Gift a while back and have to say that that’s correct, but also that it’s not really a problem. There are indeed sentences in Bellow that someone with a jeweler’s eye will declare to be in need of an editor. But they do not slow down the reader or impede his enjoyment, because they  sound natural, as opposed to affected – and, even more important, because the characters Bellow creates are so winsome. A few pages into Bellow, and the reader has the warm intuition that I am among friends here.)